ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

The Pioneers of the Search for Meaning

Updated on September 18, 2019
Deepa damodaran profile image

Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

In India or the West?

In the early literature and ancient texts, where do we find the earliest mention of existential questions? When did humans start probing the meaning and origin of their existence?

In the western world, it was as early as in the 7th century BCE that someone asked this question. Thales of Miletus (624 BCE to 546 BCE), a Greek philosopher and considered by many as the father of science and western philosophy, could be one who raised this question first, as far as recorded history is concerned. He asked the question, where do all things come from, and the answer that he arrived at was, surprisingly, from water. However, one should not rule off his findings as to the faulty assumptions of a less evolved mind. His importance lies in the method which he employed to answer the question. He was the first philosopher to try to explain the natural phenomena using natural facts rather than faith or religious beliefs. It was the moisture content that he observed in all things that led him to conclude that everything came from water.

Anaximander, another Greek philosopher who lived in the 6th century BCE asked the same question and he eventually came to believe that everything came from the “boundless”. The only existing fragment of Anaximander's book, as retold by Simplicus, another Greek philosopher from a later period, reads,

“Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
As is the order of things;
For they execute the sentence upon one another
- The condemnation for the crime -
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.”[i]

Anaximander argued that the first human was not an infant because it would not have survived on its own. So, he reasoned that humans might have evolved from the infants of some other animal, which are better equipped to survive on their own.


Indian Texts

Ancient Indian texts are another place where one can look to get an idea of what the early people thought about the beginning of life and especially, human life. The earliest mentions are from 17th century BCE.

In the Maitrayaniya Upanishad (1200-1000 BCE), a Hindu ancient text which is a part of one of the four Vedas, namely, Yajurveda, there is one of the earliest mentions of the source of ego and the origin and meaning of life. In this text, a king named Brihadratha asked the saint, Sakayanya, about the meaning of life. Sakayanya then cites Valakhilyas, a people mentioned in the sacred texts, asking another saint, pragapathi krathu, this question,

“To what supernatural being belongs this great power by which such a body has been made intelligent? Or who is the driver? What thou knowest, O Saint, tell us that”. [i]

The Upanishads, which are also ancient Indian texts of a religious and philosophical nature, supposed to be written between 800 BCE and 500 BCE, ask the same existential questions in a different manner. Specifically, there is Katopanishad, which is one among the 14 Upanishads, in which, a character named Nachiketa reaches the kingdom of death ruled by Yama, and asks him the question, ‘what happens after death?’

Brahmasutra, written by Badarayana also raises some existential questions (sutra means aphorism). Brahmasutra is supposed to have been written before 8th or 9th century BCE.

Brahmasutra reads as given below,

“All that existed then was void and formless: by

The great power of warmth was born that unit

Thereafter rose desire in the beginning, desire, the

Primal seed and germ of spirit

Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered

The existence’s kinship in the non-existent

Transversely was their severing line extended

What was above it then, and what was below it?

There were begetters, there were mighty forces,

Free action here, and energy up yonder

Who verily know and who can here declare it?

Whence it was born and whence cae the creation?

The Gods were later than the world’s production

Who knows then whence it came into being?”[ii]

The Nasadiya Sukta is a part of Rigveda, an ancient text of Indian mythology, supposed to have been written in 1100-1700 BCE. Rigveda is a text among the oldest texts in the world.

Max Muller’s translation of the Nasadiya Sukta (verse) reads as below-

“There was not non-existent, nor existent: there

Was no realm of air, no sky beyond it

What covered in, and where?

And what gave shelter?

Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?”[iii]

12th century BCE is the period when late bronze age was ending. This is the century in which the Trojan war was waged and the legendary queen, Helen, died. This century saw the birth of the alphabet too. Obviously, human thought was evolving into a more advanced realm during this period and also importantly, these thoughts were getting recorded for posterity. A careful reader can note the similarities between the western and Indian thought in this area.




© 2019 Deepa


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)